Note: Despite the tone, I wouldn’t be this harsh if I didn’t love the sport. My two favorite teams are both called out, because I think they could do better.
We’re entering Hockey is For Everyone month. This is the second year of the NHL’s initiative for inclusivity. To highlight disabled players, women’s hockey as well as LGBT inclusivity by hosting You Can Play nights.
Last year saw mostly merchandise put out by the NHL – t-shirts that boasted Hockey is For Everyone, as well as pride flavored shirts for every single team. I don’t recall seeing if any of that merchandise benefited any specific charities (not even You Can Play). Compare that with the Washington Capital’s run of Pride logo shirts that directly benefited You Can Play.
Every team was assigned a You Can Play night, and encouraged to create other nights. You Can Play, if you aren’t familiar, is an organization that sets out to show that LGBT athletes should be welcome in any sport. If you can play, you can play. More on them in a moment.
For each night, most teams put up their rainbow flavored logo, invited LGBT youth groups – and for those who have NWHL teams nearby, invited players who represented inclusivity. Like Harrison Browne, or female players who identify as being bi or lesbians. They put pride tape (special stick tape that when applied correctly looks like a rainbow) on the sticks they used during warmups, wore special jerseys – that were all auctioned off to either benefit You Can Play or a local LGBT youth organization.
Most teams made a nice effort, even if some questioned their choices of YCP Ambassador (like the Canadiens’ pick of Andrew Shaw – who had only recently been fined for using derogatory language towards gays. Or this year’s pick of Tyler Seguin for the Dallas Stars, since he’s had a history of homophobic jokes on Twitter- though he has come a long way, so it’ll be interesting to see how he handles this).
Actually, 29 of the then 30 teams did something for YCP month, except for the Dallas Stars. Their day came and went, and nothing. Even the Golden Knights, who at the time were nothing more than a Twitter account and a signed prospect, had announced a partnership with LGBT groups in Las Vegas.
Which is great. But like so many awareness months, things came and went, and that was the end of it. No push to sign minority players. No extra push to help women’s hockey – with the exception of the Penguins, who hosted the NWHL All-Star game and promoted the heck out of it, and the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils who recently announced partnerships with their local NWHL teams.
Very little was done on the part of the NHL to censure Ryan Getzlaf for using a homophobic slur during the playoffs. The NHLPA noted that it was the maximum he could be fined, but YCP and the NHLPA didn’t suggest that fines be increased. In fact, the number of fans who dismissed it as being part of the game, or tried to say it wasn’t homophobic to call an official a cock sucker… well, it was depressing.
Fact: if you use it as an insult, it’s homophobic. Otherwise, it’s just a description of someone who performs fellatio, and why would that be an insult? But if using it as an insult, you’re implying there’s something wrong with a guy performing the act.
And re: You Can Play, the fact that they didn’t take stronger action with Getzlaf and the fact that they’re headed by allies now, not LGBT athletes? It suggests that they’re an ally organization and won’t take the stance needed to make change.
When NFL athletes took a knee to protest police violence, team after team in the NHL put out statements that they hoped players wouldn’t be political on the ice. The Penguins announced that they would be visiting Trump in the White House, despite the fact that his entire platform went against the Declaration of Principles that they and the entire NHL just said were important. While playing for the Lightning, JT Brown put out a statement in support of protests and protested himself… and was threatened by fans. (He’s been traded to the Ducks, and hopefully they’re more supportive)
And in the very recent All-Star game in Tampa, the NHL invited Kid Rock to perform – citing him being a fan of the Detroit Red Wings, but ignoring the fact that he’s a performer who performed with Confederate flags in the background, and who has made transphobic statements recently. Not to mention that he very publicly supported Trump – who ran on a platform of racist statements, homophobic agendas, and general ignorance.
Hockey might be for everyone, but the NHL has done little more than come up with some slick merchandise. They don’t have clear guidelines set up for how to punish players who’ve been accused of domestic violence (in fact, there’s ongoing concern that Slava Voynov who had pled no contest to a misdemeanor DV charge will be courted by NHL teams now that his suspension is nearly up- currently, he’s banned from the NHL until after the 2018 Olympics).
The fact that Patrick Kane continues to be the face of the NHL, despite being accused of assaulting a cab driver and being accused of rape. (As is the case with many high profile sexual assault cases, the victim stopped wanting to cooperate with prosecutors and police – so the case was dropped. Why? Because of how high profile the case was, it was having a negative impact on herself and her family. Which doesn’t mean he didn’t do it. It meant she had to put her own safety first.)
They haven’t set up programs to reach out to minority players to give them the same inroads to the sport that white players already have. Even if there are are so few black players in the NHL that there’s essentially one black player per team. There are fewer Latino players. And even fewer Asian players – though the NHL’s interest in Chinese money might change that in the future.
So far as women’s hockey, despite there being teams nearby, nobody has stepped up to help the struggling CWHL teams and the other two NWHL teams (in Boston and Connecticut) – when it would take so very little effort from the NHL teams to ensure that women’s professional hockey thrives.
Is there hope? The Dallas Stars were the only pro sports team to speak out against the Texas Legislature’s proposed ban of transgender people from public bathrooms. Only months after they did nothing about their You Can Play date. But that’s just a first step. In order to make sure that hockey IS for everyone, the NHL and all their teams need to stand up and make changes. Until they do, it’s just a PR bandage.
(Updated: I should note that the NWHL and CWHL are both far more inclusive. They do have some issues regarding players from racial minorities – but both leagues have policies that allow transgender players to play.)